Beth Orton: Central Reservation (1999)
I wondered for a while what exactly it was that was so familiar about this album – something nagged away at me that I couldn’t quite grasp. It wasn’t Orton’s smoky voice, which has its own distinctive nature that isn’t really evocative of anything in particular. Second track “Sweetest Decline” has some orchestral work that sounds a bit late-Sixties lounge, but it’s not a hallmark of her work in general. Eventually, I found the answer in an earlier recording of hers. Back around 1993 she teamed up with William Orbit to remake John Martyn’s “Don’t Wanna Know About Evil”. Without even needing to hear her version, it seemed to me that it would be a perfect match for her, and then it all fell into place. Orton has drawn a line straight through the British folk of that era to her work. No matter how modern, how lush (and it is very lush) the music, no matter how informed by the electronica of William Orbit her recordings might be, the moodiness and eeriness of Martyn keeps peeking through. It’s there in both her phrasing and the sound she assembles behind her. There are plenty of other influences, but it is the economy and phrasing of folk that’s the binding force. Her earlier, breakthrough album Trailer Park leans more heavily on electronica, but this is a smoother, moodier, more personal effort. As with a lot of other albums, it took me ages to start feeling the songs step out from behind the general mood; and, as with many others, the wait was worth it. For someone with a voice as expressive and airily soulful as Orton, she really makes an effort to harness it to the music, creating a kind of synergy. It’s also fascinating how the music, while ostensibly standard jazz-folk, manages to sound other-worldly on nearly every track.
DJ Shadow: Endtroducing… (1996)
Some of the greatest achievements come from a simple idea, or more accurately the reduction of an existing thing to its simplest form. Sampling had been a thing in alternative music for a long time in 1996, but nobody to this point had really considered creating a work that was just samples. Technically, it was easy to do – it didn’t require much technology, just a sampler, a turntable and a tape deck – but without a template to work from the achievement was bound to be laborious. It also required pure instinct and a great ear. That’s the triumph of Endtroducing; it’s not music as such, it’s assemblage, but what’s been created is just as much a musical achievement as any other. Apart from a few vocal grabs by friends of DJ Shadow, this is all samples, and it’s amazing listening. It’s no gimmick, either. There are many reasons for its high critical standing – its influence, and the way it changed sampling and the sound of hip-hop for instance, which of course are vital . But there’s something else – DJ Shadow approached the act of sampling in such a technical, constructive way, he was so focused on the art of sampling and its potentialities to the exclusion of any message or narrative, that the result has a pureness about it. It validates the entire genre, and provides it with a new starting point. Most of the tracks are built around a simple, well-chosen sample around which layers are added; the wonderful thing is that even though they’re put together in that way – sounds added to sounds added to sounds – they’re still given lots of room to breathe. It really is an act of love. It’s not surprising he’s been unable to top it – you can’t duplicate the thrill of discovery, which is what Endtroducing… is all about.
What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 4)
Midnight in a Perfect World
GZA: Liquid Swords (1995)
Despite their stated aim to be a launching pad for a number of solo artists, the Wu-Tang Clan as a collective really is greater than the sum of its parts. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) not only sounds but feels like a complete statement, a distillation of the talents of the many into the elixir of the one. On that album they corral a range of styles and approaches into a seamless unified front. The various solo albums that followed come across as fragments of that creation. Or perhaps more accurately, expansions of certain aspects of it. Liquid Swords, like a number of other solo projects, retains the Wu-Tang mood thanks to RZA being in the producer’s seat; his sound is distinctive, rhythmically downbeat and cool, his beats lurking with intent in the background while GZA and his dazzling array of guest rappers get to do their thing up front. GZA clings a little closer to the Samurai/Chessboxing lyrical approach of Enter the Wu-Tang than some of the other members on their releases – including plenty of grabs from Samurai films – but he’s clearly forged something distinctive and different here. It’s more measured and thoughtful throughout, and the menace doesn’t let up. Often, a Wu-Tang release will display a brashness, an attack, a showiness in the way it’s presented. But on Liquid Swords, GZA seems determined to tone this down in order to convey a message – and although the content of the message isn’t exactly explicit, the mood and the import are clear enough. Some tracks – “Cold World”, “Hell’s Wind Staff/Killah Hills 10304”, “B.I.B.L.E” – have samples that imprint themselves on the mind quickly. The rest just nag away until you pick up on them.
Leftfield: Leftism (1995)
It’s interesting that although many reviewers reject attempts at categorising this album as a whole, they then go to the trouble of categorising individual tracks instead, as if the tracks were just thrown together as a loose conglomeration. Fair enough on the first part, as Leftism‘s overall sound definitely straddles styles; but given that, there shouldn’t be any doubt that all the tracks stay firmly within whatever that sound might be. I’d have it as a loose combination of house and world music, with a bit of dub and jungle thrown in. I guess it’s just a question of finding a description loose enough, as the pieces sound as if they belong together. They’ve been mostly culled from Leftfield’s single releases from 1992-95, with a fair bit of reworking and a few newer compositions added. A lot of care was taken in producing it, with a number of track-listings rejected, and some re-recording of the content. The result is a release which carries house music beyond its limitations and establishes it as a truly progressive force. Listening to it is a very positive experience, with lots of affirmative messages and universality peppered throughout. I wasn’t so sure if that was the case with “Afro-Left” as I didn’t know what the African lyrics were saying, but as it happens it’s just gibberish – which in a way just serves to brighten the mood with a sense of humour. “Melt” ripples back and forth like heat haze on an African savanna. It segues into “Song of Life” with echoes of Jamaican reggae feeding into some beautiful keening. You can find a distinctive stamp in each entry – especially hit single “Open Up,” where John Lydon usurps the beats with wild rants about Hollywood.
The Prodigy: Fat of the Land (1997)
It’s difficult to know what to do with this album. It is quite obviously a stab at superstardom, and I think it overstretches at times – some of these tracks just go on and on way past the moment their point has been made – but on the other hand to me it sounds so much more vital and catchy and beefy than its predecessor Music for the Jilted Generation (a pretty good album in its own right). I do wonder whether Fat of the Land is in some way an attempt to catch the danger and subversion of Never Mind the Bullocks and present it to a new generation – Keith Flint has successfully reinterpreted the nihilism and anger of early John Lydon (theatrical? – sure, but so was Johnny Rotten) – though The Prodigy do have a lot less to say for themselves than the Sex Pistols did. I like the idea of a band pushing boundaries, seeing what the limit of acceptability in mainstream music might be. Opening track “Smack My Bitch Up” is surely an attempt to court controversy, no matter how much Liam Howlett has attempted to disown its misogynistic connotations. And their use of heavy breakbeats and in-your-face sampling strips whatever was left of rave culture on their earlier album, creating something darker and newer. But despite the quality of singles “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, I still feel I’m being a little gamed here. It feels produced, contrived. Does that matter? Well, I don’t know, that’s the quandary. It still packs a wallop – it’s menacing and malicious, an adrenaline-fuelled attack designed to confront and disturb. It demands your attention and is powerful enough to hold it, not unlike a thug shadowing you on your way home from the pub.
Red Hot Chilli Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magic (1991)
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, at least on this album, are like an affirmative action rock band. There’s plenty of raunch on it – a lot more than I first thought, as I discovered when I read the lyrics – but the mood is one of survival, a celebration of the mere act of being alive. Probably a fair call, as Anthony Kiedis did go through somewhat of a drug hell earlier in his career, and was keenly aware that he mightn’t have made it this far. When he sings about his unhappiness with his own philandering on “Breaking the Girl”, or his lowest moment on “Under the Bridge”, or the bafflement of having a girl drop him cold on “I Could Have Lied”, he’s always careful to point a way forward, to demonstrate how the experience matured him. It’s the relentless positivity that carries this album; it arrived at a time when US rock was getting a bit introspective and miserable, and it was like a blast of fresh air. The point about the raunch is that Kiedis loves sex, not for the power it gives him over women but for the shared experience, the sense of communion and ecstasy. It’s there on track after track. The funked-up, smoothed-out sound helps too, creating some driving riffage that is at the same time embracing and a little sly. Rick Rubin’s production really worked wonders. It also came at a time when CDs were gradually replacing vinyl as the standard unit of consumption, and artists began to fill out the entire 74 minutes available to them. Blood Sugar Sex Magic contains more material than a double-LP, and it’s a lot to take in at once, especially as much of the time they’re riffing on the same basic sound. It seemed almost too much at the time, but we’re all accustomed to that sort of length nowadays.
Give it Away
Breaking the Girl
Sigur Ros: Agaetis Byrjun (1999)
Post-rock is somewhat alienating; it creates voids into which personal experience can be overlaid. Vocals, while often conveying a personality, are treated not as communicators but as elements of the listening experience, they’re subsumed so as not to drive the emotional response. It’s interesting to reflect that it’s the rappers and the women who were really seeking to communicate in the Nineties, and in alternative rock the instinct was to retreat or to project confusion. Even though Sigur Ros are sometimes lumped in with post-rock acts, something very different is going on here. In a technique with a similar intent to that of much introspective Nineties music, the language Sigur Ros generally use is not authentic Icelandic, it’s a dialect they invented themselves, which does create one barrier to understanding. Vocalist Jonsi sings them with such passion and clarity, however, that the effect is to envelop rather than distance the listener. Though that becomes more relevant later in their career; they only resort to it once on this album, on “Olsen Olsen”. The music here is a beautiful icy swirl, employing orchestral effects and distinctive touches such as the use of a cello string with guitar. “Svefn-G-Englar”, “Staralfur” and “Viorar Vel Til Loftarasa” are the most celebrated tracks; it’s easy to see why, with their resemblance to lush soundtrack music and the way they swoop and crescendo. But each track seems to bring something new to the table. There’s post-rockish guitar drone, brass, flutes, and on “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)” they just throw everything into the mix. They take their sound to some strange places at times, but manage never to quite lose that keening, forlorn atmosphere.
Viorar Vel Til Loftarasa
The Verve: Urban Hymns (1997)
Urban Hymns opens up with a massive singalong anthem, “Bittersweet Symphony”, and follows straight up with a yearning ballad, “Sonnet”, that sounds nearly as anthemic. So it’s pretty clear what kind of statement Richard Ashcroft is intent on making. The band had fallen apart after the release of 1995’s A Northern Soul, and after making a start on collating some material for a solo career, Ashcroft was somehow able to cobble the band together again; but he would have suspected that there was an ever-decreasing window for superstardom. So everything got thrown into this one, and the result is a bombastic but tightly-focused masterpiece, everything larger than life, and three of the four most commercial-sounding tracks pushed to the first third of the running time. It worked too – this was a massive seller, and “Bittersweet Symphony” has more or less entered Britain’s musical lexicon, everyone knows it. The sound of the album, which encompasses some pretty spacey jams and lots of more muscular rock, was the result of heavy refining over a number of years, a kind of grafting together of shoegaze drone with the psychedelic sound of much earlier. Urban Hymns occupies similar territory to Oasis, with its harkening back to classic rock tropes and big musical statements – you can hear it especially on tracks like “Weeping Willow”. The difference is that the mood is more introspective, personal; so that instead of a “Wonderwall” you get a “Lucky Man”.
The Drugs Don’t Work
Tool: Aenima (1996)
There’s no way I’m going to be able to do proper justice to this album, partly because it’s in a musical field I’m not familiar enough with, and partly because there’s so much depth to it thematically. What I will say is that I’ll always get a thrill from any album that attempts commentary on issues that go beyond the songwriter himself. And the broader the canvas and the more thoughtful the observations, the better. Where, say, Alice in Chains took a very personal hell and made it universal, Tool with Aenima take the world and personalise it. Here we have good and evil angels, references to the Bible and Nazi theology, the after-effects of physical abuse, Egyptian mysticism, L Ron Hubbard, Bill Hicks (somebody who also succeeded in making his obsessions accessible to the world), psilocybic drugs and mind expansion, the nature of selling out, and so much more. Maynard James Keenan sings with a thrilling mix of authority and nakedness, enabling the listener to be drawn into music that may otherwise seem alienating. Some people have expressed dissatisfaction with the ‘bridging’ tracks (“Useful Idiot”, “Message to Harry Manback”, “Die Eier von Satan”, “Cesaro Summabitily”, “(-) Ions”), but they all serve a purpose, they all do something relevant to the message of the album as a whole. And on reflection, perhaps it’s not even fair to say that Tool address only the universal – Keenan makes some very pointed references to his son, his mother and his own childhood here. You have to dig them out, but they are there. I’m almost adding this as an afterthought (which is also unfair) but the musicianship is incredible, taut and accurate and almost venomous. Intelligent, progressive metal, and metal this assured, is a rare thing and ought to be treasured.
Hooker With a Penis
Tori Amos: Boys For Pele (1996)
There are a couple of things I really love about this album. One is that it drove the critics mad. They had a very hard time accepting it for what it was, a vast mythmaking piece of theatrical musicianship. Amos hinted at it on debut Little Earthquakes, and stepped further along the track with Under the Pink, but this is the whole bonkers epic, the entire outpouring of feminine energy It wasn’t meant to promote singles, Amos was clear about that, but review after review attempted to categorise Boys For Pele along conventional lines, at times even forcing her into a box with the likes of Stevie Nicks and Carly Simon – I mean, really? – purely in order to tame her individuality The other thing is that I like her when she’s widescreen. Her ego is enormous, her ambition off the scale; she needs the space and scope to let it all flow. The back-story is of some interest – she’s combined the pain and hurt of a recent break-up with a more general interpretation of the Female in patriarchal society. This accounts for many of the schizo turns the album takes; the universal and the painfully personal keep colliding, never more so than on “Professional Widow” a savage, bitter piece on which her grunts and snarls come from a very dark place; it also piles on the musical styles, making it a kind of compendium of the tones the whole album takes – orchestral, rock, baroque, formal piano. There’s no doubt that at times Amos gets lost in it all, but it’s ok, you can just watch her running around the forest until she finds her way out again. I don’t even mind that the lyrics are difficult to make sense of, for me they just add to the landscape. It’s an album of mysteries and obscurities, one you can live with for a long time without truly knowing.
Caught a Life Sneeze